Quick tips to get your community choir thinking, not just copying

We often talk in our articles and podcasts about the benefits of involving your choir in the rehearsal process by asking questions rather than just giving orders. For example, rather than just saying ‘the blend isn’t right’, we can ask ‘was the blend right in that section? If not, what needs to be adjusted?’ This approach helps the choir to listen to what’s going on around them and think about what goes into making an excellent performance. It also helps to hold their attention.

Recently I embarked on a new piece with my community choir. Many of the singers in my choir have no formal musical training and we learn by ear. Most of the songs we perform are in 4/4 time and a lot of the time, the choir comes in on a downbeat or an upbeat. With this new song, the choir comes in halfway through the second beat of a 4/4 bar. As I practised conducting the song at home, I started thinking about how I could avoid lots of confused faces and achieve a tidy, clean entrance to the song from the start. Here’s what I did:

What is a beat?

In my warm-up I asked the choir to consider what a time signature is and how I communicate this to them as a conductor with my beat patterns. We all stood and I showed them a four-beat pattern which they copied. As they did this pattern we counted one two three four, two two three four etc. Although some were better at it than others, everyone started to understand the concept of the timing for themselves and what it is I do when I wave my arms around! Of course, within any choir you will have a range of musical ability but it never hurts to go back to basics. For some the most fundamental things like time signatures will be new.

Everyone loves a quiz

Once we had this under our belt, I played excerpts from four different songs. I asked my singers to identify which beat of the bar the vocals came in on. I also offered bonus points for anyone who could tell me the artist and title of the song simply because this created a bit of fun competition. The songs I showed demonstrated first, second, third and fouth beat entries so they got to experience counting each one. One of the songs was in three, again a bonus for those identifying this, which most did.

Tackling the piece

Now with my singers feeling like rhythm experts, I introduced the new piece. After playing the original through once, I re-played the start and asked them to identify the beat of the bar the vocals came in on. Rather wonderfully, many of them identified that it was two-and-a-half beats, with the rest not sure whether it was two or three. To make things easier I began by asking them to ignore the first word which was a quick half beat. Once we were comfortable with this third beat entry, we simply added the faster pick-up word at the beginning. Hey presto they did this with ease and I could see they felt very satisfied with their efforts.

Staying engaged

What I noticed about this method for tackling rhythms in a new piece when learning by ear, was how engaged the choir was in the process. They wanted to get things right and indentify the entries for themselves and when it all came together there was a real feeling of team effort. It seems to me that the more we involve our choirs in the music we ask them to sing, the more they will get out of it and the better they will sound.

Comments on Quick tips to get your community choir thinking, not just copying

  1. Avatar Graham says:

    The vast majority of my community choir have no knowledge whatsoever of music theory, but can accept that song beats are arranged predominantly in groups of three or four. When starting a new song, I tell them to come in after three/four/etc and then I count the beats aloud. When there’s a half beat involved, it’s called a short note and “look at me”. I also count the beats aloud during pauses or long notes – until the song is well known.

    I try to make my choir members feel involved by asking them their opinion. For example, how to learn a difficult section or where to have highs and lows. Sometimes their answers will show me a new perspective! I feel that they very much enjoy participating in this way.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Thanks for your feedback Graham, sounds like you have really thought things through with your singers in mind and I’m sure they appreciate this. I love that a short note is also called ‘look at me’! An interesting point you make also that sometimes our singers show us a different perspective.

  2. Avatar Jeanette says:

    Last year, my community choir tackled a piece that was 12/8 going to 9/8 at times so I had to teach them all about time signatures, counting etc. I made up some handouts on the basic theory of these things to people who did not read music to make it easier to understand. In the end, they performed the song “Send In the Clowns” brilliantly. It really is difficult for some people with no formal music training, as you say, to understand syncopation etc. Love your articles. Thanks ladies.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Jeanette, Thanks for your message, so pleased you enjoy the articles. We’ve lots more in store for 2018! A handout is a great idea to help your choir members understand time signatures. So often we just get stuck in but I think having some understanding of how the time works is more empowering for our singers and will make more sense to them in the learning process.

  3. Avatar Valerie says:

    Hallo Christine,

    I did have some people in my choir, who told me that they weren’t interested in learning anything about notation. But if I made it a quiz, they would.


    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Valerie,

      Everyone loves a quiz! I did one last week for my end of term rehearsal and it was great fun.You could definitely turn lessons on notation into a fun quiz.

  4. Avatar Louise Jarvis says:

    This is very helpful right now! We’re learning two different songs that both have 3 against 2 elements, and I’m sure it will help to involve everyone this way.

    1. Christine Mulgrew Christine Mulgrew says:

      Hi Louise, really pleased this article has come at thr right time for you. I think you’ll find involving your choir in this way is lots of fun too.

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